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There’s Hope After Habeas for Inmates, Court Rules

(CN) - A death row inmate can sue the state under federal civil rights law to perform DNA testing on additional crime scene evidence, a divided Supreme Court ruled Monday, finding that inmates are not necessarily limited to relief under habeas law.

Hank Skinner was convicted in Texas of the 1993 murders of his girlfriend and her two sons. Though Skinner admitted to having been in the house he shared with the victims on the night of the murders, he claims he could not have committed the crime itself because he was incapacitated by a potent mix of alcohol and codeine.

The crime scene was rife with forensic evidence, but not all of it implicated Skinner. Skinner says his girlfriend's uncle, who is now dead, could have committed the murders because he was an ex-convict with a history of physical and sexual abuse.

Skinner has been unsuccessful over the last decade in his attempts to find state and federal postconviction relief, as have his attempts to access the untested evidence that was collected from the 1993 crime scene - at least up until now.

After the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had denied Skinner's motions for DNA testing, Skinner filed for a federal injunction against the Lynn Switzer, a Texas district attorney. A magistrate judge, a federal judge and an appellate panel for the 5th Circuit each found that Skinner's suit should be dismissed because the action must be brought as a claim for habeas relief.

Skinner escaped execution in March, by less than an hour, when the Supreme Court granted a stay in his case. After hearing oral arguments on the case in October 2010, the justices voted 6-3 to reverse the 5th Circuit's decision.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the court's majority decision, which states that the federal courts have subject-matter jurisdiction over Skinner's complaint, and his claim is appropriate for review under section 1983, a federal law that grants relief to those whose constitutional rights have been violated by a person acting under state authority.

"Success in his suit for DNA testing would not 'necessarily imply' the invalidity of his conviction," Ginsburg wrote. "While test results might prove exculpatory, that outcome is hardly inevitable; as earlier observed, results might prove inconclusive or they might further incriminate Skinner."

The decision goes on to state that there is no precedent for concluding that an inmate's only possible remedy is habeas "where the relief sought would "neither terminat[e] custody, accelerat[e] the future date of release from custody, nor reduc[e] the level of custody."

Though the dissenting justices agreed with the state prosecutors predict today's decision will open the floodgates for inmates seeking postconviction discovery in federal courts, Ginsburg called such fears "unwarranted."

"In the circuits that currently allow §1983 claims for DNA testing, no evidence tendered by Switzer shows any litigation flood or even rainfall," Ginsburg wrote, adding that Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 designed to prevent that very possibility.

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito, dissented from the court, writing that the decision undermines congressional intent in placing "strict limitations on federal review of state habeas decisions."

The dissent states that Skinner never brought his current challenge to the Texas courts.

"Allowing Skinner to artfully plead an attack on state habeas procedures instead of an attack on state habeas results undercuts the restrictions Congress and this Court have placed on federal review of state convictions," Thomas wrote (emphasis in original).

The majority held that the uncertainty as to what discovery will yield precludes conclusion that the discovery will give inmates fodder to overturn their convictions. But the dissenting justices found otherwise.

"In truth, the majority provides a roadmap for any unsuccessful state habeas petitioner to relitigate his claim under §1983: After state habeas is denied, file a §1983 suit challenging the state habeas process rather than the result," Thomas wrote. "What prisoner would not avail himself of this additional bite at the apple?"

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